Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Political Pugilism in the Race for Speaker

It was supposed to be a close vote.

That’s what several so-called political experts told me about the Utah House speaker’s race between Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace; Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Kamas.

It wasn’t.

It wasn’t even close.

Hughes, a brash, you-get-what-you-see, Pittsburgh native, won going away in the first round of voting Thursday night a week ago; the tally 31 for Hughes, 15 for Dee and 4 four Brown. Counting of the secret ballots stop when a new speaker gets a majority.

Come Jan. 1 Hughes takes the place of retiring Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who herself was an upset victor four years ago when she knocked out then-Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara.

Admittedly, leadership races are always tough to predict.

They are the most secret of public dealings.

While a registered lobbyist can lose his lobbying license for getting involved in leadership races, many sail close to the wind.

There are more rumors, scuttlebutt and misinformation around leadership races than about any other back-room dealings of the Utah Legislature.

That’s when there’s a contested race, like this year.

Dee would have been the odds on favorite.

And many believed this round of leadership races would have been a humdrum affair: Dee would move up to speaker, Hughes to majority leader and so on, with the only real battle being for assistant majority whip, vacated as Assistant Whip Don Ipson, R-St. George, moved up to whip.

But Ipson, a trucking firm owner with his own set of personal ideals, blew that all apart last spring when he let it be known that he was running for majority leader.

Since Dee was already positioning himself to run for speaker, that put Hughes in a bind.

Would he run for majority leader against Ipson?

Or would Hughes roll the dice and go for speaker?

Some saw Hughes as a weak sister, compared to Ipson and Dee.

But, boy, were they wrong.

In fact, it has always been a fool’s play to bet against Hughes – as I learned half-a-dozen years ago during one of Hughes most difficult and embarrassing public experiences.

Back in late 2008 several Democratic House members signed an official ethics complaint against Hughes – claiming he’d acted inappropriately in dealing with several matters.

It turned out that a few of the issues against Hughes came from a newspaper columnist reportedly looking into rumors about Hughes – and those rumors turned out incorrect in the end.

The ethics complaints were filed in October of an election year, giving Hughes little time to fight back before his November re-election to his Draper City district.

And Hughes had a hardworking and financially-backed Democratic opponent.

Things looked dim for Hughes.

But like so many others who had underestimated him before in his life – Hughes being a poor, tough kid raised by a single mom – they had a fight on their hands.


That’s because Hughes had been a boxer since a teenager.

And he loved the sport, even if he wasn’t the most talented in the ring and had his share of busted noses and closed eyes.

He learned to take punches and kept moving forward.

That’s what he did in his ethics probe. He hired a Democratic lawyer who talked, and acted, tough.

Even though most of the ethics hearings (the first for the 75-member Utah House in recent times) were closed, Hughes’ lawyer was sure to talk to the media often and loudly.

The lawyer once screamed so long and hard at a KSL TV reporter in a Capitol hallway that the rest of we reporters present just started laughing, it was all so over the top.

The complaints against Hughes were ultimately dismissed – although the special House committee did issue a letter of reprimand to Hughes for playing hardball politics.

(Hughes said at the time, and since, that a fellow female legislator just misunderstood his intentions when he offered to raise money for her re-election if she, like other GOP House members, worried about losing Utah Education Association financial support if she switched sides on the emotional public school vouchers debate.)

In any case, Hughes won his 2008 re-election.

And then-GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. – daring to even take on the LDS Church over liquor-by-the-drink – asked Hughes to sponsor such a liquor reform bill in the 2009 House.

Hughes did much of the political legwork, bringing a number of disparate parties together.

In the end, for internal political reasons, former Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, sponsored the overall reform bill. (This is not unusual, more than one political mile stone bill has been taken by the upper body over the years.)

2010 Hughes ran for whip and won when Lockhart won her upset race against Clark, winning whip again in 2012.

In fact, boxing was a good sport for Hughes – the lone man in the ring facing a clear opponent.

While Hughes can play well with others, double-cross him, play false with him, and you see another side to Hughes.

He’ll deal fair with you – as a reporter, lobbyist or fellow politician. But he expects you to play fair with him, as well.

More than once, Hughes told me years ago when I wrote a profile on him for the Deseret News, when he couldn’t get along with a bully or other adversary in his high school, he’d ask the guy to walk into the boys’ room to settle the issue with fists instead of words.

On his LDS mission to the South Pacific, when some local bad boys were causing missionaries problems, Elder Hughes went to a local boxing club, where the tuffs were hanging out, and invited a few into the ring. Not only did that end the problems, it brought a few of the guys and/or their families into the faith.

Hughes had to end the missionary boxing route to the Lord, however, when the mission president visited and Hughes showed up before the LDS Church congregation in his suit and tie and one eye closed by a an overhand right.

Don’t look for Speaker Hughes to be duking it out, literally, with legislative adversaries.

But then such foes may well leave private meetings with the new speaker a little politically worse for wear, at least on House side of the Utah Legislature.